Talking Philosophy With Kids At The Brooklyn Public Library

This Sunday afternoon at 4PM, I will be participating in a Philosophy for Kids event at the Grand Army Plaza branch of the Brooklyn Public Library (in the Info Commons Lab); the event is sponsored by the Cultural Services Office of the French Embassy. I’ll be functioning as a kind of Philosophical Advice Columnist taking on, and considering, the following question with an audience made up of six to twelve-year old youngsters):

A friend of mine has a three-year old daughter. Every piece of clothing he buys her is pink and floral. Every toy is a doll or makeup kit. He’s already started joking about how she won’t be allowed to have a boyfriend until she’s 30. This all makes me incredibly uncomfortable, but I don’t know whether I’d be crossing a line if I said something. Can I let him know how I feel?

After I posted this announcement on my Facebook page, a friend asked the following question–in what seems a rather irate tone of voice:

The bigger question is why someone should think that they have a right to even think about how someone else is raising their children in the first place, let alone believe that have a right to interfere.

This is a very good question. The straightforward response to it is that because we live in a community, a society, our actions always carry the possibility of bearing on the welfare of others, no matter how self-directed or ‘personal’ they might seem; it is a libertarian and liberal fantasy to imagine that we are isolated islands in the social sea; we are caught up, inextricably, in the lives of others, and they in ours. A family bringing up their child in a sexist or racist environment is raising someone who might very well inculcate those pernicious doctrines and then act on them–to the detriment of someone else’s child. We form political communities directed toward the common good, even as we strive to maximize our individual welfare; the challenge of figuring out how individual freedoms and self-determination can be safeguarded and enhanced while ensuring the rights of others are not infringed on is a central challenge to political and moral philosophy.

To make this discussion a little more personal: I’m the father of a four-year old daughter, and I try my best to bring her up as well as I can to prepare her for the challenges that will undoubtedly confront her in a patriarchal society. My task would be made incomparably easier if the parents of male offspring brought up their children to be sensitive to such considerations as well; it undoubtedly takes a village to raise a child.

This afternoon, I will not pretend the question raised above has a straightforward answer, and will not attempt to provide one to my ‘discussion group’; instead, I will try to draw out some of the central issues involved, perhaps by engaging in some level of abstraction so that the general form of this particular query can be exposed, and the difficulties of answering it can be confronted directly. I’m looking forward to it.

The Tethered Eagle And The Refugee Refused Entry

A little over fourteen years ago, in the fall of 2002, shortly after I returned to the US after finishing my post-doctoral fellowship in Australia, I went to see the Yankees play at the old Yankees Stadium. I had arrived in New York City just a couple of weeks earlier; the Yankees were in contention for the post-season; a date had suggested a baseball game might be a good way to get back to city life; I agreed. I paid no attention to the date of the game she chose to buy tickets for: September 11th.

That evening, I showed up in time for the first pitch. Or so I thought. Once seated, I realized the significance of the date; a memorial ceremony was planned. It included all you might expect: flags, salutes to the military, anthems and paeans to the nation, all backed up by fierce chants of ‘USA, USA, USA!’ The grand finale of the show–one I predicted to my date–was a flyover by a F-15 Eagle fighter jet, which lit its afterburners with a crowd-pleasing ‘whump’ right over the stadium. The cheers grew louder.

That military jet was not the only Eagle on display that night. A little earlier, an American bald eagle had been brought out to the middle of the stadium–an American icon, a national symbol, a beautiful, powerful, bird of prey, used to soaring and pouncing and floating. It came out tethered with a chain to its handler’s wrist, unable to fly, confined to being a prop, and a confined and restricted one at that.

Irony hung heavy in the air.

I’ve never forgotten that sight. 9/11 didn’t just bring down three buildings and kill thousands of people, it also dealt a crippling blow to American liberty. Since that benighted day, the assaults on American civil liberties have grown. Along the way, the US committed war crimes in Iraq (among other countries), tortured prisoners, suspended habeas corpus for Gitmo detainees; and that was just overseas. At home, electoral disenfranchisement and assaults on reproductive rights were but mere samplers of the wholesale assault that seemed to be directed at any and all disempowered groups. (Along the way, America elected a black man whose middle name was ‘Hussein,’ an electoral result that sent enough in this country into fits of apoplectic fury. That fury has never abated; the backlash still reverberates.)

Donald Trump’s executive order banning Muslim refugees entry to the US isn’t surprising in this context–indeed, it’s a logical terminus of sorts. The land of the brave and free was scared enough to shackle its icon of freedom (and preferred to grant wings instead to a military jet named after it)–that seemed to have said all that needed to be said already. Why wouldn’t this land turn its back on its other vital national principles, its supposedly defining moral foundations? This was a country built on the idea that it would offer shelter to the world’s benighted; that idea can’t fly any more either.

Note: The ACLU has obtained a stay order from the Federal Court in the Eastern District of New York against the executive order.  Stay tuned.

Scott Walker: Destroying Tenure, Keeping You ‘Free’

Scott Walker is well on his way to destroying one of the finest systems of public education in this country.  Those who cheered his attack on public sector unions will cheer this move on too: it has everything they want. A repeal of tenure, destruction of faculty governance, budget slashing, more power to university administrators. Nation-hating leftists, lazy, corrupt, subversive teachers, insolent workers forming themselves into unions; these have all been disciplined and put out to pasture. The cheering from those who would have benefited the most from high-quality, affordable public education, from organized workers fighting for fair wages and better working conditions, will be the loudest. The masochistic tendencies  of those who elected Scott Walker will thus be prominently on display.  So will their sadistic ones, for they will enjoy the spectacle of uppity faculty and unionists brought to their knees, they will enjoy the idea of ‘someone else’ being told to work longer hours, just like they do.

Pay us less, make us work more, make universities more expensive for our children, let corporate managers, the one who rules our lives, run our universities too, let them hire and fire teachers and professors like they would hire and fire us–without reason, let them decide what our children will learn; our father, which art in heaven, thou hast made us powerless; make others powerless too, especially those that dare speak up for themselves. These are the rallying cries of those who elect Scott Walker, artfully packaged and funded by those who would actually benefit the most: monopolist capitalists like the Koch brothers. Wisconsin is tragedy and farce simultaneously.

I seem to remember another instance of this kind of phenomenon:

The emotional satisfaction afforded by these sadistic spectacles and by an ideology which gave them a feeling of superiority…[and] was able to compensate them–for a time at least–for the fact that their lives had been impoverished, economically and culturally….[it] resurrected the lower middle class psychologically while participating in the destruction of its old socioeconomic position. [Eric Fromm, Escape From Freedom, Henry Holt and Co., New York, pp. 219]

Why do the folks who voted for Scott Walker feel this way? Perhaps they are “seized with the feeling of individual insignificance and powerlessness…typical for monopolistic capitalism…[their] anxiety and thereby…hatred were aroused; it moved into a state of panic and was filled a craving for submission to as well as domination over those who were powerless.” [Ibid., pp. 218]

Perhaps I exaggerate; so let me turn to The Onion for a dose of much-needed realism, where, in the ‘candidate profile’ for Walker, we find:

Personal Hero: Sixth-grade teacher who inspired him to strip educators of collective bargaining rights and dismantle publicly funded higher education

Greatest Accomplishment: Stood up to people who make living pulling others from burning buildings

Gubernatorial Record: First governor in history to raise enough out-of-state funding to overcome recall challenge from own constituents

Chief Political Rival: Those who want to make a living wage

This same man will now run for president on a platform that will look very similar to the one he brought to Wisconsin.  We live in interesting times.

Kundera On Virtuous and ‘Timid’ Centers

In Immortality, (HarperCollins, New York, 1992, pp. 75) Milan Kundera writes:

Goethe: the great center. Not the center in the sense of a timid point that carefully avoids extremes, no, a firm center that holds both extremes in a remarkable balance…

There is something Nietzschean about the kind of center that Kundera has in mind.

The classical, geometric center of the circle ‘avoids extremes’ by maintaining a safe, antiseptic, boringly equal distance from every point on the circumference. (And there are an infinite number of these ‘extremes’, so this feat takes some doing, a wonderful and exhaustive precision of sorts.) This kind of center, when manifest in our psychological and intellectual dispositions, can lead to a rather banal sort of moderation, an insipid, ‘timid’, overly cautious, scared-to-try-the-deep-end character. This kind of personality will have no ‘style‘; it will all too easily blend into the background. It will experience little terror and so, perhaps, little beauty. (‘For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror which we are barely able to endure’?) This character has little virtue to speak of; it has found its path by avoidance, not experience.

The second kind of center though, one best imagined as one that holds, in addition to the ‘remarkable balance’ alluded to above, a tension in its connections to its extremes. This is the tension of the bowstring drawn tight, just right: any more, and it snaps; any more, and the arrow does not reach the target. The tension restrains the extremes; it holds them in check; the center represents, as it were, the sum total of the interacting forces acting on the center through its relationship with the points on the periphery. It is the tension in these relationships that holds the center in place, and grants it its gravitas.  This center is not the slave of the extremes, as the previously ‘timid’ center was, which shrank from contact. Rather, it holds its ground, confident it can avoid the collapse, the fall, the descent into the abyss. It walks to the edge of the cliff but no further; it does not retreat, unwilling to experience the vertigo that is an inevitable accompaniment to the beauty of the view that can only be glimpsed from the rim.

Note #1: The full excerpt from Immortality reads:

Now, perhaps, when the end of the century provides us with the proper perspective, we can allow ourselves to say: Goethe is a figure placed precisely in the center of European history. Goethe: the great center. Not the center in the sense of a timid point that carefully avoids extremes, no, a firm center that holds both extremes in a remarkable balance which Europe will never know again.

Note #2: It is perhaps not a coincidence that Kundera invokes these contrasting notions of the center in the context of speaking about Goethe, who after all, did write ‘Nature and Art‘, which ends with:

Whoever wants what’s best seeks combination:
A master first reveals himself in limits,
And law alone can truly set us free.

Here again, we glimpse the notion of a virtuous balancing of freedom by constraint.

Freedom in the Absence of Social Convention

In reviewing Arturo Fontaine‘s La Vida Doble, “a harrowing examination of violence during the Pinochet period,” whose heroine is Lorena, “a female terrorist who is tortured, changes sides, and becomes a torturer herself”, David Gallagher writes:

But why in fact do good fathers and meek husbands and generous lovers undertake such cruel torture? Here Lorena sees the torturer as someone who becomes isolated from any sort of moral standard while granted absolute impunity for what he does, no matter how vile. In the glib manner of a French student of the Sixties, she speculates about two opposing views of what happens when social conventions have no effect. One is that you recover the innocence of the noble savage. The other—the relevant one in this case—is that you revert to a state of primal savagery. Because there are no limits, she tells the “novelist,” an inner monster springs to life, one we all potentially harbor. Once there is no possibility of punishment, “the monster we carry within us, the beast that grows fat on human flesh, is unleashed within the good father or the daughter of a good family.”

Notice that Lorena establishes a dichotomy–there are only two possible modes of behavior possible when social conventions cease to constrain us. But we might speculate too–perhaps for the benefit of a future novelist–that the absence of social conventions might result in a new kind of freedom, one in which, rather than revert to the two states described above, human beings experiment with finding new orderings of moral and ethical values. Certainly, it isn’t clear why these “two opposing views” are the only possibilities open to human beings, why our options in the face of the absence of social conventions would be so limited.

The “two opposing views” that Gallagher refers to are influential, of course, but that might be due to a lack of imagination on the part of those speculating about a convention-free world. In the absence of convention it would also seem just as likely that rather than being innocent savages or beasts, we might merely be utterly confused and bereft, content to experiment with modes of behavior and interaction that might provide some guidance for how to proceed in this newly ordered world.

The “lack of imagination” I refer to above, is an almost inevitable consequence, of course, of a deeply essentialist view of human nature, one committed to the idea that the visible human persona consists of two layers: an abiding, enduring, inner self temporarily covered by a thin epidermis of social convention. But a more existential view would suggest that when social conventions are removed, we have no way of saying what will remain. Perhaps the new being that will emerge will delight in alternating between innocence and bestiality, perhaps it will develop ever more complex characteristics, perhaps it will grow in dimensions–moral, psychological, and emotional–that we cannot yet fathom, gripped as we are by conventional modes of thought. When we think of how constraining social conventions–fundamentally and broadly understood–are, such speculation should not strike us too outlandish.

Prohibitionists and Their Impoverished Sense of Human Motivation

A few days ago, I wrote a post here on David Brooks’ inane ‘Weed: Been There, Done That‘ Op-Ed. Looking back on it now, what strikes me as most galling about Brooks’ post and other pro-prohibition sentiments that I’ve heard expressed in the past is the shriveled, impoverished, reductive view they have of human character. Their advocacy of prohibition reveals no concern for their fellow humans; it merely highlights their narrowly conceived view of them.

To wit, the (extreme) prohibitionist seems to believe that once someone, any one, is exposed to an intoxicant, a pleasurable one, perhaps offering some palliative relief from daily routine, or diversion, or entertainment, the consumption of that intoxicant will immediately be placed atop their hierarchy of desires. From then on, the user, now an addict, will divert his time, energy, and monetary resources to the pursuit of the intoxicant. Nothing else may compete with its allure.

This–possibly caricatured–description of prohibitionist sentiment highlights its most salient assumption: that pursuit of intoxicatory pleasures will override other goals entertained by the human agent, even if the price to be paid is ill-health or financial ruin.

I hope this sounds ludicrous to you. For humans have many desires that compete for their attention; these are satisfied depending on their standing in our scheme of values, our capacities, and our stations in life. Many are the pleasures we decline because we feel that some competing goal of ours will be compromised. Some of us, admittedly, are unable to adjudicate thus between competing desires and fall prey to a possibly pernicious indulgence repeatedly; but when these compulsions become pathological, we rightly suggest that such folks seek treatment for behavior that appears to self-destructive.

This point is broader, of course. We are all assumed hedonists by the prohibitionist: any experience deemed pleasurable by us will always be pursued by everyone no matter what its cost. Our tastes are alike; our dislikes and likes are alike.

But all too often, we find that experiences found pleasurable by others are not so for us. Many of my friends love scuba diving. I have been assured it’s an otherworldly experience, taking its exponent into a magical realm beneath the waves. I’m sure that’s the case. But I tried it, and I didn’t like it. I felt no desire to pursue that experience; knowing myself and my capacity to panic at inopportune moments, I reckoned I stood a good chance of hurting myself, and hurting others too, if I continued. So, after one dive down to the Great Barrier Reef, I gave it up. There are many other things I’d rather do on my vacations (hiking well above sea level, for instance!) I might have compromised other goals of mine if I had continued to pursue scuba diving. So, to reiterate, I didn’t do it any more. Or there are those, for instance, like mountaineers or F1 drivers, who pursue their pleasures and then give them up because the risks of their pursuits has become too visible and they feel their lives with their families threatened.

These examples can be multiplied endlessly.

The understanding of human beings as being constantly and relentlessly afflicted by a form of what the ancient Greeks termed akrasia, and thus not worth being granted the freedom to live their lives according to their own, autonomously-arrived-at scale of values, is prohibition’s central incoherence.

Hegel’s Stoic and Prison Literature

In his Introduction to Hegel’s Metaphysics (University of Chicago Press, 1969, pp 30-31), Ivan Soll notes that,

With great sociological and psychological insight Hegel says that “stoicism, the freedom which goes back into the pure universality of thought, could appear as a general form of the world spirit only in a time of general fear and servitude but also of general education, which had taught men to think” (Phenomenology of Spirit, 153). The point seems to be that the frustration of the freedom of act results in the search of a type of freedom immune to such frustration. Where the capacity for abstract thoughts exists, freedom, outwardly thwarted, is sought in thought. Hegel seems to suggest that the stoic’s freedom is what Freud might call a substitute gratification.

While Soll goes on to argue–in the very next sentence–that,

However, this suggestion, interesting and true as it may be, is not completely consonant with the genesis of stoicism in the Phenomenology. Although stoicism arises from servitude rooted in fear, it does not arise because the servant is not allowed to act freely, but because all action proves ultimately futile.

it is still worthwhile to think about why this “insight” of Hegel might be thought perspicuous independent of the particular theoretical standing of “stoicism” in Hegel’s system.

This perspicuity is best illustrated by a species of intellectual production intimately associated with physical confinement: prison literature. The list of this genre’s standout items–The Consolations of Philosophy, The Pilgrim’s Progress etc–is truly staggering and populated with luminaries–Boethius, John Bunyan, Marquis De Sade, Jean Genet etc–seemingly beyond count. Here, constraint becomes conducive to creativity; the slamming door of one gate is merely the prompt to the unlocking of another. It is not a conceptual necessity associated with the act of confinement, but rather, a very particular, contingent reaction by some. For this actor, confinement does produce the search for “substitute gratification”–whether conscious or unconscious–and, to continue to use Freudian language, the channeling of the drive toward freedom into the drive for concrete expression of abstract thought. Where freedom to act is not so appropriately, powerfully, and masterfully, directed towards the substitute activity of alternative expression it can, of course, become pathologically repressed instead. (The Nietzsche of the second essay of The Geneaology of Morals would nod his head at this point, I think.)

The prison writer is, like the Hegelian stoic, still a seeker of freedom but, unlike the Hegelian stoic, not one that considers all action futile. Rather he has come to see that actions are still available to him, even if not those that had previously been available to him as a fuller mode of physical expression. So, like the Hegelian stoic, he has moved from considering freedom to being a purely practical affair to being a “peculiarly theoretical and epistemological one” (Soll, 30) but one still grounded in the activity of writing.

Those that place prisoners in solitary confinement are onto a vitally necessary piece of knowledge for the oppressor: if confinement is to work as a mode of repression, it must aspire to as much totality as possible.

Update: Just chatting with Corey Robin over on Twitter, who suggested adding Gramsci, Solzhenitsyn and Bukharin to the genre of prison literature, and also noted the relevance of Hannah Arendt’s remarks about totalitarianism to my last sentence.  Good points of course; my small list above merely scratches the surface, and I would even supplement Arendt with the Orwell of 1984.